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By PAUL GUZZO, Tampa Bay Times

LUTZ, Fla. (AP) — Growing up, Tyler Riggs’ goal was to get out of Lutz.

It was too small, too boring, too slow and too humid for him.

Three years out of high school, Riggs, now 36, bought a one-way ticket to New York City.

There, he launched a prosperous modeling career to fund acting school, moved to Hollywood, wrote a script, secured the financing, co-starred in and directed a movie.

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When he shot it, Riggs did so in Lutz.

“They say to write what you know,” Riggs said. “I wanted to make a portrait of the Florida that I knew.”

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“God’s Waiting Room” was once a common description for St. Petersburg, back when it was best known as a retirement community.

In the movie, Riggs uses the phrase to describe life for a group of friends living in a small, unidentified Central Florida town where they feel there is little to do but go about the daily grind until death.

The story focuses on a teenage musician who wants to move to New York City. She falls for a New York transplant. Their love story intersects with that of a dangerous Florida Man portrayed by Riggs.

Scenes are shot throughout Tampa but the bulk was filmed in Lutz, with Riggs using the homes of his parents and friends.

Riggs’ knowledge of the area adds to the story’s authenticity, said Matthew Leone, whose portrayal of the New York transplant won him the best actor award at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It comes off as kind of seedy and bizarre and hot and humid. He has this love-hate relationship with where he is from and it shows.”

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Often, Riggs said, those who film here focus on palm trees, beaches and Gulf of Mexico sunsets, which is not the area he knew while growing up on his family’s landlocked 5 acres in rural Lutz.

That paradise was for tourists and the upper class, he said. “I didn’t grow up with a ton of money. So, my friends and I would just drive around listening to music in empty parking lots. Even downtown Tampa back then was a ghost town. So, we’d just listen to music and skateboard there. We had to entertain ourselves.”

That’s what the teens in his movie do, too.

After graduating from Gaither High School, Riggs became a roadie for Tampa band Underoath as they toured the nation.

“I ended up being roommates with one of the guitar players,” Riggs said. “I would work for them and other bands that were on their record label over the course of three years. That was like my first time getting out.”

In 2007, he sold his car for that ticket to New York and moved onto a friend’s couch.

During his first week there, Riggs walked the city in search of his first New York hot dog.

“I’m wearing a leather jacket and clothespins in my clothing and ripped-up jeans and ripped-up Chuck Taylors and someone taps me on my shoulder and asked me if I am represented,” Riggs said. “He was a model scout and marched me into a modeling agency and signed me.”

Two years later, Forbes included Riggs in an article titled “The World’s Most Successful Models.”

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“I just sort of like fell into it and I ended up working for Louis Vuitton and all these like giant brands,” he said. “It paid for everything and then some,” including two years of acting school.

Riggs relocated to Los Angeles in 2011 and then, in 2014, received what he says was his big break when cast in a featured role in “Angels in Stardust” starring Alicia Silverstone. In the film, according to IMDB, an “imaginative teenage girl, living in a mystical and dangerous community built on a deserted drive-in movie lot along the Texas/Oklahoma border, struggles to realize her potential, and escape the world she was born into.”

In 2017, he was starring in and executive-producing the independent film “Boomtown.” That behind-the-camera experience inspired him to “make his own way,” Riggs said. “I started writing scripts and was piecing it together with a few real stories from my personal life and just other things that happened in Tampa, you know, like Florida Man stories.”

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Shooting in Lutz around two years ago “checked so many boxes,” he said. “I knew the people and places. I had access to locations. My friends were in the movie and let us borrow their cars. It was perfect.”

Wait, Lutz, the boring hometown he wanted to escape, is perfect?

“I guess so,” he laughed. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

“When you are a kid, your town looks like the ugliest neighborhood,” said Leone, a native of Leonia, New Jersey. “Then you grow up and leave and realize you have so many memories and there’s such a soft spot in your heart for it. If it hadn’t been for Lutz, he wouldn’t be who he is. But, if he stayed in Lutz, he wouldn’t be who he is. It worked out.”

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